PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Prompted by the death of a 15-year-old girl, Oregon's Department of Human Services is studying whether age plays a factor when welfare workers choose which cases to investigate.
Jeannette Maples died in her Eugene home Dec. 9, and her mother and stepfather have been charged with murder. Human Services officials wonder whether welfare workers failed to act on calls reporting her abuse because she was older than many other child abuse victims.
State investigators are looking at whether the flawed screenings in her case were due to individual misjudgments or to a systemic problem of abuse screeners "over-relying upon a child's age as part of their evaluation of child vulnerability." Their audit of a sample of closed cases is expected to be completed by March 1.
State and private social service leaders insist they see no evidence in the Portland area that child welfare workers are reluctant to act on abuse reports about older children.
"If the caller says a 16-year-old got punched in the face by his dad or a 4-year-old got punched in the face by dad, we're assigning both of those," said Stacey Ayers, program manager for child protective services. "The responses will be immediate."
But there is a history of placing less emphasis on cases involving older children. In the 1990s, Oregon deliberately categorized older children as less vulnerable, under the theory that they could flee abusive homes if necessary. Officials say they abandoned that practice after youth advocates challenged it.
"They have tried to get over that mentality," said Kevin Donegan, director of homeless youth services for Janus Youth Programs Inc. in Portland. "Unfortunately, there is still some of that mindset in the state."
Mark McKechnie, executive director of the Juvenile Rights Project Inc., agrees that Portland-area social workers have responded better to abuse reports on older youth in recent years. But he said he still worries that state guidelines for screening abuse reports could lead some workers to conclude that older children are not vulnerable.
Guidelines say a child's vulnerability should be judged "according to the child's physical and emotional development, ability to communicate needs, mobility, size and dependence."
In a report released last week, state investigators said Maples' age appears to have been "considered as a major factor in the conclusion that she was not vulnerable."
At least three reports in 2007 and 2009, when Maples had become isolated in home school, should have triggered visits to her home by state child protection workers, the investigation concluded.
Instead, screeners chose against intervention after each call.
In the state's Multnomah County Child Welfare Hotline office in Portland, social workers do not assume older children are less vulnerable because they could have cognitive or developmental deficits, might not be able to defend themselves, or might have nowhere to go, said Miriam Green, program manager.
As a safeguard, she said, every report is shown to at least one supervisor and sometimes to police.
"We have to get it right 100 percent of the time," Green said, "and we're human beings."